"He's the real thing," confirms Neil Smith, the former Rangers general manager who is currently a scout for Anaheim. "You very rarely get to see the real thing coming along. He's got everything you could ask for. He has a unique number on his back (87); he's a very good-looking kid, very articulate. He's the total package. He's like a matinee idol type—kids want his poster in their bedroom."
It wasn't all that long ago that Crosby was tacking posters of his own heroes on his bedroom wall. Born 8-7-87 in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, he was up on skates by the age of three. Soon after that, he began firing pucks into a net that his father, Troy, built for him in the basement near the family's dryer. That dryer quickly became the first victim of Crosby's intense competitiveness. "It took the worst beating," says Troy, a former goaltender once drafted by the Montreal Canadiens. "It worked for years with no buttons on it, was dented and looked like a Dalmatian. The controls were all destroyed."
With that kind of drive and skills to match, Crosby was playing against kids twice his age by the time he was seven— the same year he conducted his first newspaper interview. And it wasn't long before some began predicting that Crosby might obliterate at least a few hockey records. The Crosby telephone started ringing by noon every day. But instead of girls calling, it was agents—all hoping to court hockey's next megastar in the mode of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros. Crosby and his family eventually signed with someone just to get the phone calls to stop.
At 14, Crosby continued to skate toward the pros. He even hired a personal trainer, Andy O'Brien (now the Florida Panthers' strength and conditioning coach). It was O'Brien who eventually molded Crosby into a powerful and skilled skater.
But despite the workouts and his insanely competitive nature, it's what's in his DNA—exceptional vision, athleticism and a relatively small but insanely fit perfect-for-hockey body—that prompted Gretzky to gush to The Arizona Republic that Crosby was "the best player I've seen since Mario (Lemieux)." This was in 2003, when Crosby was 15.
Crosby has since lived up to that claim. And how. Last season he was the first teenager to lead the NHL in scoring since Gretzky did it in 1980. But just as LeBron's game is vastly different from that of the NBA's Great One, a.k.a. Michael Jordan—Crosby is no mere Gretzky wannabe. Many observers, Smith and O'Brien among them, say he has Gretzky's skills and passion—plus a dash of Lemieux's vision and the physicality of imposing past greats like Peter Forsberg and Mark Messier. "He skates better than Wayne, and he's also unique," says former teammate, Mark Recchi, a 19-year veteran. "He has great vision, he's explosive, and he makes his teammates better all around."
Lifting his team. Elevating his own game. Living up to the hype. Crosby is clearly channelling his inner LeBron. A few years back, he remembers sheepishly asking a Reebok rep for one of James' Cleveland Cavaliers' home white No. 23 jerseys. He doesn't wear it, though. "It would be down to my knees," he says, chuckling. "I know in the Finals he had a tougher time (James and the Cavs were pummelled by the San Antonio Spurs in four straight games). It's different in basketball. Obviously, it's a team sport, but a player can take a game into his own hands like he did. Hopefully, I can help my team in the same way." He's already well on his way.